Monday, January 15, 2007

Mood Swings and the Job Hunt

WHILE EMAILING A FRIEND and former coworker yesterday regarding a long-overdue get-together, I began writing about the possibility of freelance work, and inadvertently came up with a tentative plan for this year. I spent some time at work last week browsing the jobs available in my field on Monster and mediabistro, but found myself discouraged. Many of them wanted a portfolio, because they were closer to full graphic-design positions than my current one. I am ashamed to say I have done very little that might be of interest to these sorts of employers. I never achieved my goal of designing an incoming newsletter from the ground up, which would have been as close as one in my job might get to doing some creative work.

True, the accounting title I worked on for 3 years involved tight deadlines, tables and graphs created under pressure with ill-suited software, and reflow of copy when stories went stale or changed fundamentally. But there is very little to show for it. I will yank some representative PDFs for my book, but that leaves it very thin.

If I were to advise students at my alma mater, I would exhort them to watch very carefully for signs that they will not have the chance to add to their skill sets in their jobs. If they go for longer than 3 months without an opportunity to learn, to secure a new certification, or to crosstrain on another aspect of their profession, they should lobby their employers for these chances, take classes on their own, or quit for a position that will grant them all of this. In waiting for 2+ years for this new workflow to be implemented at my job, I took no classes or cert courses, figuring the launch was just around the corner. It kept me less marketable, and I regret the gap and its unproductive expanse.

This is not to say that nothing can be done about it. Far from it. While writing to my friend about my current choices, and mentioning my deficiencies in areas like Photoshop and Web design, I came up with the following, which I shall paraphrase so I'm not entirely revealing verbatim private correspondence:
  1. Find a fulltime job that increases my skill with areas of the Adobe Creative Suite where I am weak. (Or at least offers the chance to train, perhaps with tuition reimbursement. If not, pay it myself and see if it's tax deductible.)
  2. Begin copyediting, proofreading, and/or writing freelance.
  3. Learn new editing stylebooks — I adhered to American Psychological Association style at my first job, occasionally used AMA there, and got my feet wet with Blue Book during my first year as an editor/typesetter at my current place.
  4. With more developed design skills, and a regular roster of editing work, begin offering freelance design work as well.
  5. Find myself 2 or 3 years down the line better able to do much of this on my own, and go fully freelance.
Granted, in the next month, I could find a compelling, spiritually nutritious full-time job where I gleefully spend the rest of my career. But I let my mind go through the freelance option, for the sake of example, and not without precedent. My Jedi master at my first workplace, who taught me how to copyedit, proofread, and use DTP software, left that company almost 5 years after I started, and 12 years after he had signed on, to form his own freelance business to do just about anything he did while employed, plus writing (he was a talented writer and often crafted every word in the company newsletter). So theoretically, it can be done. I need to get back in touch with him to see what his recent activities have been. He hasn't been using the same email as he did when he was freelancing, so I'm not sure if he's still in business. He may still have some wisdom to pass along on those lines, though. I do recall his saying that healthcare represented a huge nut to cover.

That I had come up with a sort of action plan didn't really sink in until this afternoon, during which I had been searching for jobs online again. The office was depopulated, and I had little work at my desk. Typically we get Martin Luther King, Jr. Day off, but for some reason, they needed a day to complete some holiday weekend that I won't be around to exploit, so we had to come in. Many folks took the day off anyway, because they knew our printers and other vendors would be shut down. So I did some more searching, and read through the materials our outplacement firm had provided.

I found myself getting discouraged again. Each ad required just a little something that put me way behind even the newest graduate from design school. I left today wondering how I could have felt so optimistic back in November after we met with the outplacement specialist. He had said some mood swings were natural, but I just wasn't feeling the initial euphoria of having new opportunities.

I had a date for dinner at my parents' place, where the discussion turned . . . to the situation at work. I had no real difficulty talking about the current state of affairs there, how the typesetters at the outsourcing firm are mangling schedules and offering subpar typeset results, and how there are so many aspects of the jobs being eliminated that our bosses, who have never viewed our roles from trench level, will only encounter when they become a problem.

Where I began to get a bit impatient was when my parents asked me how the job hunt was going. I had told them there were going to be days when I didn't want to discuss it, although I didn't say this immediately, because they didn't push. Eventually, though, after I mentioned that I was in need of some remedial education to better qualify for many graphic design positions, they began asking what I would do if I had to change careers — what else I would want to do. I told them nothing. They pushed the matter, asking if I had any other interests in jobs that weren't going to be sent offshore with everything else. I let their questions follow me to the fridge, where I got another soda, and then by way of answering, I fixed my mother's gaze and said, quietly, "Do we really need to discuss this?"

"No," she said, ceasing her inquiry.

I finished my dinner in relative silence. Later, I gently explained to her that I had had a demoralizing day, and that I had mentioned that there would be days on which I wasn't going to feel like answering a whole lot of questions about my search. She understood, though she did say that my father eventually was going to want to know how things stood. Her phrasing bordered on a suggestion that he was entitled to such updates. Considering I'm not paying him rent, car money, or tuition debt, I think he — along with my mom — will get regular updates as my morale dictates.

I wonder how they would have reacted had I given them the plan I outlined above. Probably they would doubt my ability to get it done, and absolutely they would worry about my health insurance costs. I think a time eventually comes where you realize that you are the best assessor of your own abilities, prospects, and goals, and you can distinguish between those that are truly best for you, and those that you inherited from parents as a product of their concerns. True, they are probably valid at the base, but if they keep you from realizing your best destiny, they are limits, and should be broken. And as I said in the email to my friend, I will be working for the next 30 years, if not more. If it takes a little more time right now, when I in the best financial and health condition I'll be before middle age crashes in, to find the right skills and career path, don't I owe that to myself?

I think the prospect of utter failure is underrated by some people and should not be seen as some sort of living death, but rather as part of the journey to boundless success. This country — its tax system, its unemployment laws. the easy flow of credit and loans — offers many opportunities to recover fully after bankruptcy, misfortune, or utter fuckups. If it takes some false starts, and maybe some gloomy or even hungry nights thereafter, to get where I really need to be in my life, won't those be the most critical and beneficial fuckups I can make?

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